Based on the 70's anime series, Casshern was a 2004 live-action film which looked very promising yet it left me feeling somewhat conflicted leaving the cinema after watching it: parts of it pissed me right off but other parts were all kinds of awesome.
So how does Casshern fare now, after a re-watch?
Much better, actually.
The flaws I'd picked up on the first time watching it are still there and they are still distracting but the stuff that works in the film does very much outweigh them. If you're not familiar with the film's plot, it involves a Dr Frankenstein-style scientist (Akira Terao) who finds a way to regenerate dead tissue through what he calls Neo-Cells. During a war, a lightning bolt mysteriously hits his lab and, as a result, a new race of people is born. At the same time, his son Tetsuya (Yusuke Iseya) is killed in the war and he brings him back as some kind of superhero who ends up calling himself Casshern.
The new "monsters", Neo-Sapiens, plot their revenge (the army destroyed most of them as soon as they were born) with the help of thousands of huge automatons and Casshern is forced into stopping them somehow. While Speed Racer didn't really nail the 60's feel of the show it was based on, it still got the tone relatively right, Casshern however is much, much darker than Casshan. It's nowhere near for kids. They took the basic iconography and specific plot threads of Casshan but turned it into this epic, existential, war-bashing fable about life, death, cruelty, genocide and all things depressing.
Luckily, the film is kept mostly fun through being completely overblown throughout.
Usually in a good way.
Like Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, Casshern is mostly shot in front of green-screens, which allowed the filmmakers to create the craziest CGI steampunk world they could think of: big robots, cogs and machinery everywhere, planes with FACES, superhero fights agogo, they did not take this movie lightly when they made it. They took the material in Casshan so seriously that no matter how silly the film gets, you end up buying it. The whole Frankenstein aspect, which was definitely there in the anime, is brilliantly and uniquely re-created here, and the whole war theme is pushed to grand levels. One thing I love about Casshern is that, as seriously as it takes itself, it still delivers us some of the best and most kick-ass live-action anime sequences you'll ever see: whenever Casshern's in full gear (the helmet's different but the original one does cameo) fighting someone or something, the film reaches such heights in terms of pure mindless yet visually arresting action that the lesser aspects almost feel irrelevant.
Thankfully, the characters are interesting enough, as is the story's development, that you do genuinely want to know about what's happening and where these characters will end up. One of the film's biggest problems is its preachiness. Yes, war is bad, that's obvious, and yet the film drills that into your head every chance it gets. Every conversation every character has is either philosophical, existential or directly making a social comment when, based on the action you've already seen in the film, you certainly already got the point long ago. I mostly blame Luna (Kumiko Aso), Tetsuya's girlfriend, who not only contributes nothing to the movie (she pretty much just sits there) but whines about how people kill each other when they shouldn't and then cries or gets all emo about it.
Thinking back, there is a lot of crying in this movie...
These are an emotional bunch, I tell ya!
Casshern moves at a slow pace and its soundtrack can be repetitive (Moonlight Sonata etc.) so it could have easily been at least 20 minutes shorter and that would have actually helped make the whole thing more palatable. The length did bother me a lot the first time watching it as, towards the end, the build-up is followed by a lot of talking and music swelling up at every revelation and conclusion, but it didn't annoy me too much this time. I still had a lot of fun and I was still impressed throughout by how full-on the film is in every aspect. Casshern's main theme may be "war is bad" but I did find, re-watching it, that there is a little more to it than that. The film isn't only criticising wars, science's God-play and genocide but it's basically saying we're screwed because it's in our nature to hurt and kill each other, therefore we're doomed to repeat these horrible things forever. It's a thoroughly bleak, pessimistic and ultimately depressing thought and certainly contrasts with Casshern's cool robot-destroying antics but that's intentional.
The titular character is presented to us first as a selfless man with a good heart who still, nonetheless, goes to war and kills innocent people coldly, then he becomes a saviour, a superhero who can fly, move super-fast and do all kinds of amazing things but, by the end, we go back to his earlier despicable actions and realise that it's these actions that resonated the loudest in the grand scheme of things. He's an anti-hero and the Neo-Sapiens are anti-villains, Tetsuya's mother (Kanako Higuchi) is, in many ways, the most human of all these characters... and she's not only going blind but is terminally ill, like humanity itself I guess. No-one has all the answers in this movie and, although the film does hammer in its point well, you'll probably be taken aback by how much of a downer it is.
I know I was!
Casshern cost like $6M, Speed Racer over $120M: one was dark, stylish, unique, smart, daring and very close to being a masterpiece in its genre and might arguably be the best live-action anime film to date. The other was loud, dumb, incomprehensible, over-stylized, uninvolving and felt like The Cat In The Hat on meth. Which just goes to show that it's not the quality of the green-screen or the budget that makes a good film, it's the validity of what you want to say and how well and uniquely you say it that matters, both in terms of the writing and visually.
Don't expect a happy-go-lucky ride but if you like anime at all, go watch Casshern.
It's overblown and far from its source material but it's also kind of amazing.
Just watch it.